Criterion

Criterion Review: The Life of Oharu


★★★★★

Of the countless films director Kenji Mizoguchi made over his career, The Life of Oharu is said to be among his favourites, and Criterion’s welcome home release of his 1952 masterpiece is proof of both its aesthetic quality and narrative power. The eponymous Oharu (Kinuyo Tanaka) is a young noblewoman in seventeenth-century Japan who falls for the affections of Katsunosuke (Toshirō Mifune), whose low rank bars them from marrying. They elope, but their Shakespearean romance is cut short when the lovers are caught on the run.

Katsunosuke is executed while Oharu and her parents are exiled, thus beginning a life of misfortune, exploitation and cruelty, starting with Oharu’s parents gleefully selling her off to the territory’s lord to bear his heir. Once she has performed her duty, Oharu is summarily dismissed from her post much to the chagrin of her father who is deep in debt. Oharu subsequently finds herself as a consort, servant, and street prostitute as she tries to make her way in the world while everyone around her abuses and exploits her vulnerability.

Like the novel Moll Flanders, Oharu’s life bounces her from one misadventure to the next, but unlike Daniel Defoe’s heroine, Oharu is allowed little agency in the unfortunate events of her life. Instead, poverty, a rigid class-system and endemic social misogyny conspire against Oharu at every turn. The methodical inevitability of Oharu’s misfortune is emphasised by Yoshimi Horano’s claustrophobic cinematography, where cloying, dark mist hangs heavily in the frame and bamboo shoots surround Oharu like prison bars. Music, too, is conspicuously absent except for the lamentable ballad of a prostitute and the haunting score of the film’s final scene after Oharu is denied even a brief audience with her grown son.
Points of resistance to society’s injustices do shine through the cracks, however. The brassy support of Oharu’s fellow prostitutes offer sweet drops of camaraderie, and Oharu’s mistress’ confession that she is secretly bald is a tender moment of sorority, bitterly shattered when jealousy creeps in and Oharu is once again sent into the cold. Tanaka’s portrayal of the abused Oharu is characterised by restraint, with the slightest change in demeanour and movement enough to tell of her pain. Mizoguchi keeps Tanaka in the middle distance, never allowing us to get close to her while reinforcing her isolation through the strictures of ritualised seventeenth-century Japanese society.
The Life of Oharu is a quiet and stately picture, but no less a passionate, searing critique of society’s treatment of women. Opening with Oharu at the end of her life, Mizoguchi tells her story in flashback, circularly peeling back the layers of time to reveal the woman we meet at the film’s start. Neither as kinetic as the films of Akira Kurosawa, nor as flashy as the violence of chanbara cinema, The Life of Oharu nevertheless remains a monument to Mizoguchi’s legend as a filmmaker.

Christoper Machell | @Dr_Machell